God … God Never Changes …

Read the title in a Ron Perleman voice, if you can.

Anyway, Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse are going on about sophisticated theology again. Now, some of you may recall that I’m not really a theologian, and don’t really do theology. I have an interest in philosophy, though, and as part of that I do have an interest in some of the philosophical issues in theology — sophisticated or otherwise — and when those philosophical issues are being ignored or misunderstood. And both Coyne and Rosenhouse, in my opinion, do that.

The overall issue here is over whether or not the Bible considers homosexuality to be immoral, and I don’t see it being a particular problem if it does, mostly due to this sort of quote that Rosenhouse uses to get up the issue:

There are no completely unambiguous references to homosexuality in the New Testament, though there are certainly verses to give us pause. Here’s 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

Presuming that this is a condemnation of homosexuality, it seems that they are in “good” company. If homosexuality is as bad as all of those things, that’s a fairly mild reproof, at least by today’s standards. Homosexuality, then, wouldn’t be singled out as something that is especially immoral, and it’s clear that there’s a major disagreement over what is and isn’t moral here. I’d say that that’s a disagreement that hasn’t been settled yet, either; for many of these things, that we today don’t see them as being immoral does not mean that they are immoral, and I don’t agree with some of the new humanist moral principles, especially the one most used to defend some of these practices, the idea that that private actions that an individual takes that do not harm anyone else are not something that can be judged morally wrong. I disagree with that because I reject the idea that morality is defined by harm to others, and if you remove that argument then the idea that private actions may be immoral is clearly in play. The fact that the Stoics pretty much considered all morality, in some sense, as a private action only adds to my skepticism about that principle. But I digress.

So, seeing that there are issues over what it means to be moral, and ignoring for the moment if their moves succeed, there are fundamental philosophical issues here once we try to figure out why this is even an issue at all.

Let’s start with Coyne:

…if anything must be true about Biblically-based morality, it must be unchanging. Theists have no truck with secular morality precisely because it evolves over time, while they perceive Biblically-based morality as the unalterable mandate of God.

This, I think, is not quite true, and makes a common mistake of conflating deontological, absolutist, and objective moral principles. The popular idea of moral codes like that of Christianity and Kant that leads to such criticisms has been that you make a rule and that rule holds in all cases and for all times. There is no consideration for consequences or that the world may change; the rule is the rule is the rule. It is not the demand for this, however, that causes the rejection of secular morality. As has been stated by those who oppose secular morality, it is an objective moral code that the religious desire, not an absolutist or deontological one. The argument is that secular moral codes have no objective grounding; they ultimately are grounded in something that ends up being subjective and that one needs some kind of subjective argument to hold. The claim that Coyne ascribes to theists — and note that in that statement he would include me who does not agree with that, necessarily — is not that it evolves over time, but that it evolving over time proves that it is subjective, while ostensibly the commands of God are not subjective, and would remain objective even if they changed. So that “unchanging” thing just isn’t the argument that’s being levelled against secular morality, and so his argument does not address the arguments his opponents are making.

It gets worse. Even Kantian ethics — the secular poster child for a deontological morality — does not deny that circumstances and conditions may impact morality. The big push for Kant having an unchanging morality comes from his views on things like lying, derived from the Categorical Imperative, which states that you cannot will anything to be a moral law unless you can make it a universal maxim without it becoming self-defeating. However, this doesn’t actually mean that moral laws cannot, in fact, work on the basis of consequences. The blanket argument against lying is that if it became known that this was the rule in those circumstances it is, in fact, always self-defeating; if I know that a moral person will lie in case X then I will not believe what they tell me in case X, but since lying is designed to get someone to believe a falsehood as if it was true your lying would be pointless. So it’s a logical conclusion, not a stipulation.

When we step down to less strongly deontological moral systems, we can see that there’s even more room for circumstances to play a part in moral reasoning. Both the Stoics and the Aristotleans insist that there are a set of things called Virtues that are at least reasonably logically determined and always define what it means to be moral. But for both of them how you determine in your everyday life what to do depends to a large degree on what you are doing right now. The circumstances you are in determine what it means to act virtuously, despite the fact that the set of virtues are absolutely fixed. So, my claim is that these views are as absolutist and objectivist as they come, reject consequentialism — they don’t judge the morality of a situation by what consequences it has — and yet still can consider circumstances and so are still open to change if circumstances change or are different.

To look at Christian morality, let’s take one of the rules that’s clearly a moral law: Honour thy mother and thy father. Now consider this choice (t’is a thought experiment): It’s Christmas Day. Person P has made plans to go to their parents for Christmas, something that they know their parents look forward to. However, it’s snowing, and the forecast says that the snowfall will be significant; driving will be treacherous. However, the weather is not so bad that it isn’t doable. Does P go to visit their parents or does P call them up and say that they won’t make it? What does “Honour thy mother and thy father” dictate in these cases? It seems to me that it depends in large part on P’s parents. If P’s parents generally think that getting together is worth taking the risk on the roads, then honouring them would mean going even with the weather. If, on the other hand, P’s parents do get concerned about the weather and would rather know that P is at home and safe instead of risking an accident in bad eather, then honouring them would mean staying home and making that phone call. So we can see that the vague rules of the 10 commandments need an appeal to the circumstances to figure out what it actually means to act on that commandment.

Thus, an important question can be asked here: Is it possible that in some circumstances and in some cultures, homosexuality and other “sins” may be considered worse than in others? Is it possible, then, that there might be cases where a moral God would demand death for the sin of homosexuality, a few Hail Mary’s in another, and not even consider it a sin in other cases? I don’t know. To settle this, we would need to settle what it means to be moral, and if there are reasons behind God’s moral judgements. However, what’s important here is that if we can ask this question we can clearly see that having the application of a moral law differ in different circumstances is not, in fact, creating a changing law or changing God’s mind. Moral laws — even those from God — may indeed always need references to particular circumstances in order to know how to apply the moral laws, and so some reinterpretations of that may simply reflect attempts to identify those references.

Rosenhouse makes a similar point, but does it much more poorly:

This is an extraordinary statement. That God is unchanging, at least on moral questions, is absolutely fundamental to quite a lot of Jewish and Christian theology. Especially among some Catholic theologians it is commonly argued that the notion of God changing his mind on some moral question entails a logical contradiction. God doesn’t choose to be good, He simply is goodness in its purest form. He can no more change His ideas of what is morally permissible than He can build a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it. This, moreover, is said to provide a way out of the Euthyphro dilemma.

Yes, that God is unchanging on moral questions is indeed fundamental to a lot of Jewish and Christian theology … but not all of it. Some Catholic theologians — a subset of Christian theologians — hold that it would be a logical contradiction. This answer is said (add in “by some theologians”) to give us a way out of the Euthyphro dilemma. All absolutely true.

But the first thing to learn if you want to engage with sophisticated theology is … not all theologians agree. So, Rosenhouse is right that such an explanation would cause problems for some theological positions. Hence, those theological positions will not use such explanations. There is little evidence that the authors he is criticizing hold those theological positions, and so there’s no problem for them. So, at best, what Rosenhouse is saying here is that there are a number of theologians who would be on his side in disagreeing with the moves the authors make. This is news? What, really, does that mean as an opposition to them?

And is he even interpreting the theologians that he says agrees with him properly? For example, he makes hay out of the argument that God is goodness in its purest form, which I think might be a reference to Aquineas. And yet a commenter at Edward Feser’s blog has continually said that the properties of God make it so that you can’t consider God a moral being, and that that is a mistake. Feser’s view itself would seem to not fit into the views that Rosenhouse is criticizing. So those theologians that would not support such a move may not have any issues with it, or may have made the whole question redundant. I myself take the view that God simply tells us what is right because morality is a matter of knowledge, and since God knows everything that’s knowable He knows what is moral, too. So is the claim extraordinary? Well, it’s controversial at least. But that doesn’t mean anything about the claim in and of itself; it needs to be evaluated on its own merits and cannot be eliminated simply because some theologians might have problems with it.

Rosenhouse then moves directly to the same sort of argument Coyne makes:

Why should a believer in God reject the notion that God is free to change? Because such a notion completely puts paid to the idea of absolute morality grounded in God. Was God simply wrong when he said homosexuality was a sin? Unthinkable. But then are we to believe that homosexuality was wrong at the time that God condemned it but has somehow become right today? Then so much for absolute morality.

So, put aside the already stated argument that morality may be absolute and still circumstantial, which casts this whole line of discussion into doubt. Rosenhouse makes an even worse mistake, by ignoring that if one takes the horn of the Euthyphro dilemma that what God says is morally right is what is morally right then God can never be wrong about what is a sin and what isn’t. For that horn of the dilemma, it was indeed the case that homosexuality was wrong then and right or at least morally acceptable today. Rosenhouse is trying to grasp here at an argument that that would make it subjective, but that wouldn’t make it subjective in a way that would cause issues for most who take that horn, even if it does make it subjective. Those who criticize secular morality on the basis that it isn’t objective mean that moral duties aren’t facts, and they evolve over time and differ between cultures not because some times and cultures just know the facts of morality better, but because they have no grounding in anything that could make morality a fact about the world. The counter-argument is that they have such a ground, as all moral facts are nothing more than facts about what the being that makes all facts about the universe — God — says they are, just like all other facts, such as natural laws. The morality, then, is still objective in the same way that the facts about gravity are objective. And it’s still an absolute morality since it starts from this absolute moral law: What is moral is what God says is moral. So this isn’t even a problem for the horn of the dilemma that it would be a problem for, never mind those who take the other tack and argue that there are such a thing as independent moral rules.

This is a useful paragraph for establishing the sort of hair-splitting in which Friedman and Dolansky engage. Are we seriously to think that verses declaring homosexuality to be a sin punishable by death, among other unpleasant things, is really worried about drawing fine distinctions between different forms of gay sex? And I doubt it even occurred to the male writers of Leviticus to worry about female sexual gratification. Their failure to mention lesbian sex specifically hardly seems like much of a reason for thinking the Biblical authors were OK with it.

This is unfortunately an excellent paragraph to show how Rosenhouse isn’t quite getting how you do philosophical or theological analysis. The authors actually said this at the end of the supposedly useful paragraph:

These are in that chapter, and they’re important, but they’re not the subject of this post.

And they are important, for one really big reason: they lead us to ask “Why”. Why is God saying that homosexuality is wrong? Are there reasons behind his moral stance, or are they just arbitrary? If there are reasons and we are capable even to a limited extent of figuring them out, then we can ask if those reasons apply in the modern case. We can also ask if those exceptions detail blanket exceptions or if other unstated things can lead to other exceptions and inclusiions. Rosenhouse’s reply essentially says that the Biblical authors probably didn’t even think about women at all and so didn’t mention it, which is basically the equivalent of saying that maybe the Biblical authors didn’t include female homosexuality because they thought it was hot. Neither is anything approaching an analysis; he just makes an assertion based on a previous notion that the Biblical authors were sexist, which may be true but beyond that he has no evidence for his analysis and you can easily use that evidence to argue that if it was to be considered immoral they would have stated it even more strongly, supporting the contention that he thinks is not supported. Ultimately, we need to do more thinking and reading to figure this out, but here Rosenhouse doesn’t seem to be engaging the point or the authors at all.

Rosenhouse, unfortunately, continues this trend in talking about their argument about the word to’ebah. His reply is:

he examples Friedman and Dolansky cite, in which the Hebrew word to’ebah refers to local customs and taboos, all have two things in common. The first is that they describe human beings talking to other human beings. In this they differ from the verses in Leviticus, which describe God Himself providing instructions to humanity. The second is that the context of their examples make it completely obvious that it is local customs that are being described. Again, not so in Leviticus. The verses in Leviticus look to virtually everyone like absolute prohibitions, which is why clever folks like Friedman and Dolansky must work so hard to argue for any other view. We now know that the Biblical authors were perfectly capable of expressing the idea of merely local taboos. Why then did they not do so in Leviticus?

The problem is that in the section Rosenhouse quotes, the authors are hinting that the writers of Leviticus did exactly that … by using the word to’ebah:

When one examines all the occurrences of this technical term in the Hebrew Bible, one finds that elsewhere the term is in fact relative. For example, in the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that, if the Pharaoh asks them what their occupation is, they should say that they’re cowherds. They must not say that they are shepherds. Why? Because, Joseph explains, all shepherds are an offensive thing (to’ebah) to the Egyptians. But shepherds are not an offensive thing to the Israelites or Moabites or many other cultures. In another passage in that story, we read that Egyptians don’t eat with Israelites because that would be an offensive thing (to’ebah) to them. But Arameans and Canaanites eat with Israelites and don’t find it offensive. See also the story of the Exodus from Egypt, where Moses tells Pharaoh that the things that Israelites sacrifice would be an offensive thing (to’ebah) to the Egyptians. But these things are certainly not an offensive thing to the Israelites.

Their argument, then, is that the use of the word to’ebah should be seen to indicate a local custom, because that’s how it’s used elsewhere, and so we should take the interpretation of the word that best fits the whole text, which Rosenhouse seems to want us to do. And yet Rosenhouse’s reply is basically that if you are applying the word to’ebah to God, then it has to be a universal offense and not a matter of local custom. The question I have for him, then, is if it is reasonable to think that God could in fact dictate local custom, a rule for here and now and this context as opposed to always in all places and forever. If God could do that, then Rosenhouse’s argument is undermined since if the term means, as they assert, local custom then the most reasonable interpretation is that God is doing just that, and Rosenhouse’s argument is splitting hairs while ignoring how the term is actually used. And it does not seem unreasonable that God could, at times, be saying nothing more than that: do this now and in this context, but this isn’t a universal moral rule. Christians think, for example, that a fair number of things in Leviticus are really that sort of rule. So where is Rosenhouse’s evidence that just because God is saying it it becomes a universal moral rule?

Note that their argument does lead to an issue, which you could see if you were paying attention to what I just said above. They argue that to’ebah means that it is to be taken as an issue of local custom, and that homosexuality and a few other things get this tag. So what about, say, the wearing of mixed fibres or the eating of pork? By their argument, we now have little reason to think that these are a matter of local custom because the authors of Leviticus now do make it clear what is and isn’t to be considered local custom. But Christianity, at least, considers much of Leviticus to be a matter of local custom. This would be a major problem for pretty much all of Christianity. And you only see it if you pay attention to what the authors are actually saying.

Rosenhouse does call them out on a potential contradiction, in that they claim that the differentiating factor is to’ebah means local and to’ebat yhwh means universal. If God is actually talking, then it seems that the last part — offensive to God — is unnecessary. The problem is that then Rosenhouse would need to examine those cases to see that the distinction does not hold even when God is speaking. If to’ebat yhwh was generally used even when God was speaking, then Rosenhouse’s argument would fail. However, I do like part of his argument, since it helps us to get around the problem I raised that Rosenhouse likely doesnt see, as it would describe homosexuality as universally wrong but by not specifying it for most of the other things in Leviticus those things become simply local customs, or at least not universal moral sins. So Rosenhouse has a theologically interesting argument … if he only knew what the discussion was actually about.

I have no doubt that in the small community of Biblical scholars, this sort of analysis is considered very clever and highbrow. No doubt they endlessly pat each other on the backs for it and shake their heads sadly at those who think that when God personally describes something as an abomination, He actually intends to express His disapprobation for that something. But their arguments amount to nothing. To accept their conclusion we must believe that the Biblical authors once again (let us recall that the early chapters of Genesis come in for similar treatment at the hands of Biblical scholars) expressed themselves in ways that are most naturally understood in a manner almost precisely opposite to what they meant to say.

The first problem in Rosenhouse’s summary is that he seems to be concluding that finding an argument interesting means thinking that it’s right. Rosenhouse is arguing, essentially, that the argument is stupid because it doesn’t work, and that the people receiving it in a complimentary fashion are doing so because they think it is right. But as we’ve just seen, Rosenhouse is advancing an argument against the claim, and an argument that we’ve seen is a bit shaky (since it doesn’t actually address their argument). Anything that you have to advance an argument against to refute is not plainly stupid. Rosenhouse thinks he’s stating the obvious, and so that he isn’t making an argument. He’s wrong, since we can examine his premises and find them at least potentially confused.

The second problem is that he seems to be considering the idea that the expression in ways different than how they are “most naturally understood” is a slam-dunk argument against it. The problem is that the authors have argued for why it should be interpreted that way. If they had just asserted it, then he’d have a point, but since they argued for it he cannot simply dismiss the argument and assert that the supposedly “most natural” interpretation is the right one.

Which leads to the third problem: what is the “most naturally understood” interpretation and why should we think that Rosenhouse’s interpretation is really that one as opposed to that of the people he’s arguing against? A lot of time in philosophy what interpretation one should put on a word or a passage depends on various contexts, including the universal context of the specific philosophical system. You don’t have a hope of understanding Kant or John Dewey without understanding their entire mindset then they’re writing about their philosophy. The argument that Rosenhouse is criticizing is based on looking at the whole context and interpreting what it means on that basis. Rosenhouse ignores all of that, and then basically declares that his interpretation is the right one. That’s not acceptable, and if Rosenhouse would do some philosophy instead of sticking to mathematics — where universal definitions free of contextual issues easier to come by — he’d see that.

The last word is Coyne’s:

I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology; there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.

But the problem is that neither he nor Rosenhouse seem to grasp what the philosophical method is, how it works, how to analyze philosophical/theological works or that you have to actually address the arguments of your opponents on their terms if you want to argue against them. Thus, neither of them get what more sophisticated theology is or what that criticism is trying to say. To me, it seems that the charge of “You don’t understand sophisticated X” boils down to this: You haven’t taken the time to understand that a) different positions have different commitments and b) what the actual commitments of the positions you criticize are. So let me summarize the challenge as simply this: You don’t understand the position you are criticizing. You need to learn more about it before criticizing.


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